I use to think being an Evangelical was synonymous with being a social conservative—a belief that the Christian faith is solely about our adherence to traditional moral and religious standards and how we express these standards in our liberal culture.
The thought of ever supporting or agreeing with a “liberal” politician or “progressive” Christian leader is often seen as a “mortal sin” in many Evangelical camps, and is sometimes met with self-righteous judgment by those who say you can’t be an Evangelical without being a social conservative too.
But should we not be willing to “forgive”—to overlook—the social liberalism of leaders like Justin Trudeau—who by the way considers himself a person of “deep faith and belief in God”—when it’s clear they’re compassionately sold to welcoming the least of these and bringing forth justice for the vulnerable and mistreated?
Although overly ambitious and imperfect, the Trudeau government’s efforts to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada should cause Evangelicals to applaud Trudeau’s sense of social justice. What we do for the least of these should not only define who we are as Canadians, but who we are as Christians as well.
Similarly, Trudeau’s promise to implement all 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, although far-fetched and probably not achievable, reveals something about our new Prime Minister we should at least be proud about: He cares about the vulnerable and abused in our midst. He cares about social justice.
Compared to our previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who outright dismissed the need for a national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada, Trudeau instead has shown compassion for the broken-hearted families and the 1,200 daughters they lost to God knows what.
“I believe that there is a need for a national public inquiry to bring justice for the victims, healing for the families, and to put an end to this tragedy,” Trudeau said in a statement. The guy has a heart. But this shouldn’t be surprising for a person who grew up influenced by Jesuits.
God works in secular people and public spaces to bring about social justice
As Evangelicals, we may not like everything about Trudeau’s social liberalism when it comes to his position on issues like abortion, marijuana and euthanasia, for instance, but that shouldn’t cause us to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” In other words, we shouldn’t let our social conservatism get in the way of embracing leaders like Trudeau who have a biblical sense of social justice.
But let’s address the elephant in the room. Many Evangelicals would argue that Trudeau is a “nominal” Christian at best, perhaps not even so at all because of his hyper-liberal social philosophies and his severe separation of Church and State in public service. These are legitimate concerns for Evangelicals who think faith should influence public policy to some extent.
So let’s indulge the nay-sayers for a second and assume that Trudeau isn’t a genuine or practicing Christian in the New Testament sense of the word and ask the question: Can God still work in such a person?
Yes. We know that God is able to (and often does) work in secular people and public spaces; many faith traditions affirm this reality.
John Calvin and those in the Reformed tradition would appeal to the doctrine of “common grace”—grace that God gives to humanity through common political establishments, for instance. Similarly, Martin Luther saw God’s work in political leaders and secular spheres as the “fingers of God” working to bring blessings into the world. John Wesley appealed to the doctrine of “preceding grace.” Wesley scholar Howard Snyder explores this in the context of God’s mission in the world:
“A key missiological implication of preceding grace is that God is the first, the originating missionary […]. God is already active in all persons, cultures, societies, and to some degree in many (not all) religions.” He adds that non-Christian religions, institutions and people “are not in themselves a means of grace, but God’s grace to some degree works in them—if in no other way, at least to restrain evil.”
And so, when we applaud Justin Trudeau for his sense of social justice, we are recognizing that God’s grace is working through him—genuine Christian or not— to restrain evil and bring about justice for the oppressed. And a major way God restrains evil and suffering in the world is through social justice.
I’m a social conservative on many contemporary issues facing our culture, including my position on homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia and the like. But I’ve learned—perhaps the hard way—that my social conservatism shouldn’t be the defining factor of Christian mission in the world.
Love-proclaimers, not moral crusaders
God doesn’t call us to be moral crusaders, but peace-makers and love-proclaimers. When our approach to Christian mission is propelled by a rigid application of the former, we will only see sin in the world and vilify those who don’t meet our standards for “theological correctness” and pristine morality.
This ends up creating a dualistic conceit in our minds and hearts that paints a black-and-white world of insiders and outsiders, where we—the moral crusaders—become the insiders favored by God, and everyone else—the irreligious and liberal—become inferior outsiders smitten by God for their “sin” of violating the social conservative group consensus.
When we think this way, we reject the Bible’s claim that people outside God’s family— “who do not have the law, [but] do by nature things required by the law”—can have God’s law of love already “written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14,15).
Christian or not, Trudeau is leading with grand gestures of love and social justice. The things that Jesus is made of.